BEEFCAKE BUSTED?
Abercrombie & Fitch Takes on Disability

And BENT takes on A&F,
with commentary by Tom Metz, Raymond J.
Aguilera,
Michael Perreault, and Max Verga

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REAL LIFE
by Tom Metz

 

When I saw the Abercrombie & Fitch ad featuring Kyle Maynard, congenital amputee, with his direct gaze, bold and challenging, it scared me a little. I thought, here's a kid who could whup my ass. Turns out I was right. He's a wrestler.

I know Kyle is meant to be the ad's featured model, because on the facing page he is given top billing and space for a 135-word essay in which to state his philosophy of life. The young man giving Kyle a piggyback ride, Cyler Sanderson, who is not an amputee, is granted only thirty-three words in which to state his philosophy, the last four of which are, "… and Kyle's my inspiration." But Cyler is no potted plant. If anything, he scares me a little more than Kyle. His gaze, every bit as direct, bold, and challenging as Kyle's, could almost be described as baleful. Maybe he's trying to look tough for the girls from school who will see his picture in the A&F catalog.

Or maybe he's wise to you and me.

He knows we think he's hot. The look in his eyes say, "Don't even think about it. Even though my buddy's bare chest, beautifully sculpted and naked, is pressed against my back in a simulation of butt-fucking, and even though the weight of his torso pushes my upper body ever so slightly forward, so it looks as if I am bending over to receive him, even so, if you're even thinking about it, then you must be one sick motherfucker. I'm a real man. Real enough to love my buddy. Real enough to hold him firmly but tenderly under the thighs and support the weight of his bearing down on my broad shoulders from the stumps of his well-muscled upper arms."

Kyle looks every bit as tough and hot as Cyler, but also a little apologetic. After all, it's his fault Cyler got drafted for this photo shoot and they are now being bossed around by a faggy art director.

I think Cyler knows what's going on. I think he knows that he's only there to provide the erotic frisson that an Abercrombie & Fitch ad requires. And I think Kyle knows that he's only there to stand in for diversity.

The news here is that Abercrombie & Fitch have chosen to represent diversity at all. They are famous for a brand identity that is preppy, sexy, and white. Their fashion catalog, featuring "our hottest models, living the lifestyle," is like soft-core porn produced by LL Bean.

But in November 2004 A & F lost a $40-million dollar class action lawsuit. They have sworn to add more color to their staff and advertising images. Indeed, they have already photographed two African American models. Go to http://www.abercrombie.com/anf/lifestyles/html/photos.html# and click Launch. My, such progress. Quick, somebody call the Urban League. A&F, however, remains the target of an ongoing national boycott by Asian Americans for marketing T-shirts printed with Asian caricatures.

So they chose a white disabled man to represent diversity. I mean, he perfectly fits the A&F model profile: preppy, white, and scrumptious And then you see those stumps, sans prostheses, staring you in the face. (I wonder what else he can do with those besides wrestle.) Ya gotta admit, it's a visually arresting image. I think this ad says "Fuck you" to black people and Asian people. Either that, or I'm completely wrong, and A&F just really, really wanted to get our attention to signal that they are sorry about the whole diversity thing and they're really, really seriously gonna start including absolutely everybody in their ads.

Whatever.

Clearly, Abercrombie & Fitch is not in the reality business. With Kyle Maynard's A&F ad in mind, you would hardly recognize him in the January 2005 issue of "Reader's Digest." On page one of the Reader's Digest feature, we find a photo of Kyle sitting erect on the wooden floor of the high school gym, looking like his mom's idea of perfect posture. Kyle is wearing those goofy ear protectors that wrestlers use, the ones that look like ear muffs except that, to make sure they don't slip, they've got as many straps as a bicycle helmet. He's also wearing that awkward grin that straight boys slap on when they know a picture is being taken. When they're not trying to be tough, that is. In this picture he's not bold, challenging, or intense. He's just adorable, that's all, so adorable I want to pinch his cheeks.

Kyle lost his first thirty-five wrestling matches. The first inspirational story about him was published when he was eleven, playing football. He admits now that his presence on the field was merited only by the coach's indulgence.

Thank you, Kyle. I appreciate your admissions of failure. When I read about brave crips—and I do—it's the failures and adaptations I want to know about. I want to know how they triumph over great odds. Kyle types fifty words a minute, using his stumps. I type fort-five words a minute, jabbing at the keys with the tip of my left index finger and the second knuckle of my right index finger, while wearing a wrist splint on my right hand and cradling the arm in a little crane that supports my elbow.

I want to know how brave crips triumph over great odds, because I want to triumph over great odds. Because I can. I know I can. I can tie my shoes. I can button my shirt. I can go on a business trip to Tucson without spilling food or embarrassing myself. When I was first disabled, in my twenties, I really impressed myself with how well I adapted. I wrote by holding a pen in my teeth and changed the way I did a lot of other things that are too personal to discuss here. I used to daydream of someone making a movie of my life, of all my brave struggles, and how I would eventually overcame all those obstacles to become … well, the details got a little vague at that point. I still know the title of this as-yet-unmade movie: "Bathe! Dress! Fix Breakfast!" But I'm not young and inspirational anymore. I'm 44 and worried about the future.

Kyle's motto is, "It's not what I can do, but what I will do."

Same here. I will avoid the next round of layoffs. I will fully fund my 401(k). And someday, as God is my witness, I will pay off my mortgage.

As you must have guessed by now, Kyle has a press agent. I know this because he told Larry King on CNN. I do not begrudge Kyle his press agent. I do not begrudge him his media-savvy friends, who come up with great blurbs for the press. Someone told "Reader's Digest" that Kyle is a "human antidepressant." Damn. You can't buy that kind of coverage. Kyle parlayed the very fact of his being so damn inspirational into a lucrative motivational speaking career. He just started college this year (University of Georgia or Georgia Tech—press accounts differ), but he's already a client of the Washington Speakers Bureau. They're the biggest. Even Larry King seemed impressed.

I should be jealous of Kyle Maynard, but I guess I'm not. He seems like a good kid, and his parents seem smart and caring. This kid is a lot savvier than I ever was, and less ashamed. He seems so … uncomplicated. I do not know any uncomplicated disabled people. Why is that?

I hope Kyle makes a shitload of money as a model and motivational speaker. I hope he stays in school and develops his marketing expertise and I hope his name becomes a copyrighted brand. I hope someday he owns Abercrombie & Fitch, the whole damn company. Cyler Sanderson could be vice-president.

In the meantime, I would like to share something with you. If you happen to see Kyle's Abercrombie & Fitch ad, you may miss one detail. It's the jeans. You know, the actual merchandise. Kyle is advertising the Ezra Fitch Medium Wash Selvage Denim. They sell for $148. And to fit Kyle's short legs, someone has cut them off at the knee. Selvage denim is good for cutoffs, because it resists unraveling. Maybe that's why Kyle endorses them. But unless you intend to make cutoffs from a pair of $148 pants, I would recommend an outfit called QC Supply. Go to their website at http://www.qcsupply.com. You can get a pair of Dickies Relaxed Fit denim carpenter pants for $20.79 plus tax and shipping. I take mine to a lady named Michelle, who replaces the button with a hook. It's easier for me to handle. She charges me $10.

And I guess that's what I want to say to Kyle. In his real life, whatever that looks like, I hope he's buying the Relaxed Fit jeans for $20.79.

© Tom Metz 2005

TOM METZ lives in San Francisco. His writing has appeared in newspapers, magazines, and books, including "A Family and Friends' Guide to Sexual Orientation" (Routledge Press, edited by Bob Powers and Alan Ellis, 1996) and "Queer Crips: Disabled Gay Men and Their Stories"
( Harrington Park Press, edited by Bob Guter and John R. Killacky, 2004).

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LOOKING for a ROLE MODEL
by Raymond J. Aguilera

 

Kyle Maynard. Big fucking deal.

There, I said it. Call me a jerk and stop reading if you want. I don't usually shop at A&F or read "ESPN: The Magazine," so I wasn't aware of Kyle Maynard until someone pointed him out to me. He's attractive, in that Abercrombie-let's-play-naked-lacrosse-in-a-dew-drenched-meadow kind of way. And he's a gimp. And he's an Abercrombie model. That is a big fucking deal.

Disabled folks, we don't have many role models. In fact, I can't really think of one. That guy with Down's who was on that show? Nope. Wait, what about that Deaf actress? Nah. That guy with the chair on 20/20? That other guy in the chair, the one who draws those cartoons? For those of you playing the home game, the answers would be Chris Burke, Marlee Matlin, John Hockenberry, and John Callahan.

Now, I'm not saying that any or all of these people aren't worth being role models (nor am I saying that they are, mind you). What I am saying is that, outside of our little gimp bubble, which of these people is an icon? Or even inside our bubble? Exactly none of them. That's what I'm saying. Considering that gimps make up 20% of the population (estimates may vary—see your professional statistician), you'd think we'd have at least a few go-to icons that might have hit the big time, entered the popular culture, become, well ... role models.

Look, I never watch or play basketball, but I can name at least twenty basketball players who are role models to thousands, if not millions of people. NBA players are most certainly somewhat less than 20% of the total population of Planet Earth, so I have to wonder, Why they are so over-represented in the role-model category? The answer is: The Media. NBA players throw balls through a metal hoop, or party with Paris Hilton, or buy expensive houses or cars, or rape women. Any and all of these activities get them in the paper or on television.

Disabled people do a lot of stuff too, but none of it gets any of us in the paper, not to the same extent. That's how someone like me, who doesn't play or watch basketball can know so much about basketball players, and so little about all the stuff that all the world's cool gimps are doing on a daily basis. So when I see Kyle Maynard, someone who is obviously disabled, putting it out there like that, I have to cheer him on. Good for him!

Interestingly, though, he doesn't seem to be getting much play from Abercrombie, aside from their self-consciously congratulatory ad we're talking about here. He's not featured prominently on the A&F website, and when I strolled down the street, past the store, he was not blown up to adorn one of those supersize black and white posters that hang in A&F's windows beckoning like softcore porn, either. Sigh.

Still, he's out there. Google him. You'll see. He's getting press, and whether we like it or not, getting press is the best way to become a role model to somebody, somewhere. And look at it this way, even if he doesn't become anyone's role model, the simple fact that he's out there does us all some good. Kyle Maynard. Big fucking deal.

© Raymond J. Aguilera 2005

RAYMOND J. AGUILERA is practicing his model pout, and waiting for Abercrombie & Fitch to call. His writing appears in "Queer Crips: Disabled Gay Men and Their Stories" (Harrington Park Press, edited by Bob Guter and John R. Killacky, 2004). He is a frequent contributor to BENT.

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IN PURSUIT OF NORMALCY
by Michael Perreault

 

If there were anything normal about Kyle Maynard—or Abercrombie & Fitch ads, for that matter—one would have nothing to do with the other.

When I first tried to read the text portion of this "New York Times" Sunday magazine double-page spread—one of the most expensive spots in print advertising, by the way—my attention kept getting pulled back to the full-page photo that occupied the right-hand page. Kyle Maynard, clearly my candidate for a 21st Century Marlboro Man, gazed directly into my eyes with a, "Sure, take a good look, I know you want to," while Cyler, not my first choice in the looks department but with a face that's grown on me since, stared back at me, studying my reaction to Kyle in turn. The three-way loop was completed; I was pulled in, a full participant. Effective advertising? You bet!

The more I looked the more I saw. Hmmm, no right elbow on Kyle, no forearms either; and Cyler's pose, reminiscent of Kyle's, has his right hand turned under, invisible. Purposeful? Probably not, but it's a photo that, after the initial "Whoa!", keeps inviting scrutiny. Free to stare without social recrimination, I wanted to look more closely, didn't you? I'd have preferred to see Kyle's stump without the sock. To be honest, I'd have preferred Kyle naked, but A&F can't sell clothes that way. In my own life I'm used to seeing bodies like Kyle's, I'm just not used to seeing bodies like his in print. Unsettling? A bit, but welcome nonetheless.

Tearing my attention from the photo I read Kyle's assertion, "My whole life has been a pursuit of normalcy." Guess what? That was my credo, too, for the first four decades of my life, until the late effects of polio laid waste my self-deception. My childhood dream was to wear "normy" shoes and to burn the orthopedic ones along with my vile braces. Penny loafers were all I ever wanted. They would make me normal; they would make me cool. Never mind that penny loafers would mess up my feet even more than they already were. I didn't care. I wanted to put as much distance between my self and my "dropped" feet and atrophied legs as possible. So "normal" was where it was at for me; I set myself up in pursuit of what was never to be mine. I chose inclusion at any cost and cost me it did. I bought "normalcy" hook, line and sinker and was left feeling drained. I could never be normal enough.

"Anything I wanted to do, I could do," writes Kyle. My eyes rolled back into my head when I read that one! Believe that and you believe we must all reach for the brass ring—whether or not we have hands or fingers to grab it with. We must be heroic, because if we're not heroes we are victims, or worse, cowards—no middle ground for us. But all things are not possible, even for the nondisabled. Why, then, do we struggle to deny obvious limitations? If we acknowledge a limitation, does that necessarily mean we've reached a dead end? Can't it be a beginning of a different sort?

I have limits; I can't do everything I'd like to do. Even my abled associates have limits. With perseverance and creativity we can accomplish things we thought were beyond our capabilities, but still not all things are possible. If they were, disability, disease, war and every other nastiness in the world would long ago have vanished. I don't like being held to a standard that others don't maintain for themselves, that's all.

"I enter the ring on the back of a teammate," writes Kyle. Please note: he does not walk into the ring; he does not levitate into the ring, either. He gets into the ring on someone else's two feet—and in a homoerotic way, to boot. Go Kyle! But doesn't that means of locomotion pretty much destroy the "anything I wanted to do, I could do" statement? I mean, let's indulge in a little grammatical truth-telling. Doesn't "I," the first-person singular, imply an action taken by one person alone? Remember "we," the first-person plural?

Kyle's achievements, genuine and admirable though they may be, are tied to the actions of others. Just for starters, his parents instilled positive attitudes, his mother called the coach, his coach customized wrestling moves, and his teammate Cyler carries him into the ring. "We," not "I." Why does our popular culture demean the concerted action of people helping one another in favor of the heroic "I"?

Does A&F care about the community of "We"? Does A&F do more than picture disabled people in its ads? Does A&F employ disabled or other marginalized people? Are we more than a marketing strategy?

Do I believe that this ad exploits people with disabilities? Yes. But, like it or not, exploitation in today's marketplace can be proof that we constitute a valuable commodity. After having been negatively objectified for eons, especially when it comes to sex, I would not mind being made an object of desire. It beats indifference. It might even get me a date.

While I find the photo of Kyle and Cyler provocative, I find the ad's text consistently offensive, trite and clichéd. "Kyle's my inspiration," concludes Cyler. Pardon me while I barf.

One last comment about the photo: I think the tattoo on Kyle's arm would be far more effective if the tiger, like its owner, sported congenital amputations.

Is a tiger still a tiger without its claws?

© Michael Perreault 2005

MICHAEL PERREAULT has written frequently for BENT. He is a contributor to the Lammy-Award-winning anthology, "Queer Crips: Disabled Gay Men and Their Stories" (Harrington Park Press, edited by Bob Guter and John R. Killacky, 2004).

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SUPER-CRIP SEXY
by Max Verga

Several months ago I read about the advertising methods adopted by Abercrombie & Fitch. By featuring what some perceived as underage models in patently sexual poses, A&F, long known for its staid, traditional image, has been trying to appeal to a more youth- (and yes, sex-) oriented public. A&F's corporate bosses, it seemed clear, were pandering to their idea of what the public is like, and likes—simple as that. The morality behind their strategy bothered me less than their decision to showcase youth and physical perfection as an ideal. The very fact that a lot of people took offense at this display was proof that Abercrombie's ad agency had generated enough controversy to ensure that A&F catalogues were prized, even if some people might be acquiring them as soft porn rather than as buying guides.

Seeing the image of a disabled man, albeit still a young one, featured in A&F's latest ad campaign forced me to stop and think about corporate motives all over again. The hucksters responsible for this new image were, no doubt, striving to top their previous controversial photos with a fresh kick-in-the-face look hard to ignore. Or maybe by using this photo of a disabled youth they were referring to the notion of heroism that has snowballed since 9-11 and now is connected to images of soldiers returning from Iraq with missing limbs.

The text accompanying the photo supports this interpretation, while at the same time it illustrates what, among many disabled people, has become known as the Super-Crip Syndrome. Or maybe the advertising geniuses chose a disabled athlete precisely because the image does force us to question its use. Could it be that they concocted this photo because it represents a new way of looking at people with disabilities, even if the new way—noble heroes facing down personal adversity—might be just as skewed and essentially false as the old idea of people with disabilities as pitiable victims, not remotely sexual?

We might find some clues in the accompanying text written (purportedly) by Kyle Maynard himself but full of enough clichés to make us suspect (how can I be so cynical?) meddling by admen. The first line refers to Kyle's lifelong "pursuit of normalcy," though at his age statements about "lifelong" anything seem suspect. More important, I wonder why he believes "normalcy" is something to aim for and what, in his case, it might encompass.

His belief that his disability is "God's will for my life" makes me sad. Why should any of us need to view disability as anything more than an accident of nature as random as the matching of one strand of DNA to another? From that point onward, Kyle's statements read like the script outline for a Television Movie of the Week. There's the noble coach, who helped him figure out how he could wrestle like all the "normal" boys; his being able to go to the prom with a girlfriend; and yes, the sense of pride and satisfaction at "kicking some kid's butt," a dream for any red-blooded American boy, especially one with a disability.

My cynicism is not directed at Kyle, whose view of himself at this stage of his life is undoubtedly sincere, but at the people who decided to display him in this manner. Looking at the photograph of Kyle and Cyler, I, a gay man, find it hard to view their body-on-body contact as anything but erotic. Some might interpret Cyler's carrying Kyle as demeaning, a reference to that old "He ain't heavy, he's my brother" line, but the photo itself works beautifully because Kyle has been positioned so that despite his anatomical lacks he looks dominant.

It struck me odd at first that Cyler wears traditional wrestling togs while Kyle wears cutoffs that show some underwear. Maybe the cutoffs force us to focus on Kyle's missing lower limbs, a reminder that all of his pants have to be cut or tucked under. He could have worn ordinary shorts, but cutoffs suggest rebelliousness, too, as if a good pair of pants had to be "sacrificed." Combined with Kyle's tat, you get the impression that he is a bit of a rebel, while Cyler seems like more of a standard-issue kid.

Kyle's statement about choosing not to use prostheses gives additional credence to the idea that A&F is trying to paint a picture of a young man unafraid to display his differences. Here, they seem to be saying, is a guy strong-willed enough to get a tattoo and hitch a ride on the back of one of those kids whose butt he might have kicked—although the pose suggests he could be capable of doing more than just kicking it.

Yes, I have to admit that the photo and accompanying text do seem to perpetuate the Super Crip image. And yes, there is clearly an erotic element to the photo, especially when seen through the eyes of a gay man. Quite probably the photo was devised for purely profit-driven reasons. Nevertheless I believe that the image is a positive one in many ways, one that transcends the base motives that engendered it. You can't look at it and fail to think what a handsome man Kyle is, a fact in no way diminished by his anatomical differences. In fact, the viewer is virtually compelled to ask if Kyle is sexy despite his disability or possibly even because of it.

Since A&F has for years presented young models as sex images despite their tender ages, anyone familiar with the advertising campaign must assume that Kyle, too, is being displayed as a sexy young man. And that, no matter what we read into advertising intent, or even into Kyle's own words, can only be positive.

I wish Kyle might see his disability as something other than "God's work." I would like him to view his life as something other than a quest for normalcy. I wish society did not feel compelled to make up for past discrimination by now assigning super-hero status to people with disabilities. I wish that we didn't need to sell clothing by selling sex. But since we have decided that only sex sells, I am happy to see that at least one man with a disability is being used for that purpose.

Despite what could be a positive side to his exploitation, I remain uncomfortable with Kyle's being used. But the success of this latest A&F advertisement might eventually be measured in terms other than sales figures. For once, a man whose body puts him outside the standard canons of "sexy" is being looked at as sexy. That can only be a good thing.

© 2005 Max E. Verga

MAX VERGA writes BENT's "Bear in Mind" column. His writing also appears in "Queer Crips: Disabled Gay Men and Their Stories" (Harrington Park Press, edited by Bob Guter and John R. Killacky, 2004).

 

 

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BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/January 2005